"Every great story seems to begin with a snake." - commonly attributed to Nicolas Cage, origin unknown
I couldn't agree more. Ever since the release of Aether Revolt, every good tournament of mine has started by writing four copies of Winding Constrictor down on the deck registration sheet. Or at least, that's how it feels. If I sit down and think about it, I can remember tournaments in that time period where I put up respectable finishes without the aid of my favorite Snake. They just weren't as much fun.
As you might imagine, this means that I haven't exactly been thrilled by the recent state of Standard. Temur Energy was a cool deck and all, but it sure didn't play Winding Constrictor. Yes, you could play Sultai Energy if you wanted to cling to Winding Constrictor, but for most of Ixalan Standard that deck was anywhere from substantially to slightly behind Temur Energy. Further, it always did feel more like a Blossoming Defense deck than a Winding Constrictor deck and was never able to make me feel quite as alive as good old B/G Constrictor did.
But now, things are different. Rivals of Ixalan is about to be Standard legal. Attune with Aether is banned. Rogue Refiner is banned. So are Ramanup Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon, but those are less important to the positioning of Winding Constrictor. Is it time for Winding Constrictor to make its presence known once more?
Before addressing that question, let's back up and talk a little more about the difference between old-school B/G Constrictor and the Ixalan -era Sultai Constrictor Energy decks.
"The man who has once been bitten by the snake fears every piece of rope." - Chinese proverb
The defining characteristic of Winding Constrictor decks since their inception has been very scary threats. Winding Constrictor dials up the rate on nearly every creature in the deck, to the point where the Constrictor player is getting way too much bang for their buck in games where the Snake lives. Players caught onto this fact quickly, and started killing Winding Constrictor on sight.
B/G Constrictor dealt with this by accepting the reality that its creatures would die. The accepted play pattern became leading with non-Constrictor threats, always threatening to land the Constrictor and make powerful plays the second the opponent let their shields drop for a turn. Longtusk Cub was perfect for this, as it could very easily become a 6/6 when followed up by a Winding Constrictor if left unopposed.
To beat this, opponents had to start treating nearly everything as must-kill threats. If you left the Longtusk Cub alone, a later Snake would punish you. If you ignored Walking Ballista, they could go Winding Constrictor plus Rishkar, Peema Renegade or simply Verdurous Gearhulk and make you sorry.
Snake players played into this by including ancillary threats that were also very important to kill, despite not being directly synergistic with +1/+1 counters. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, for instance, was a very dangerous card to ignore. Simply put, B/G Constrictor sought to play as many must-answer threats as possible, let the opponent kill what they wanted, and then put together a win with the leftovers.
Put that way, the B/G Constrictor's game plan sounds great. Why wouldn't you adopt such a plan? The downside is what, playing creatures that are so good they have to be killed?
Well, the danger in the B/G Constrictor plan was falling too far behind. Some of its cards weren't inherently threatening on their own, only in combination with the deck's plethora of synergies. If the Constrictor deck let its opponent trade one-for-one too aggressively, it wouldn't have enough cards left over to be threatening. A solitary Snake is no threat, after all. So Constrictor pilots had to routinely hold their cheap threats until later in the game and set up to deploy them together to ensure that they got to benefit from their synergy.
Holding threats is all well and good until you fall so far behind on the battlefield that no amount of synergy can get you back in the game. Turns 3 and 4 were critical here, turns where something had to be done, but you didn't quite have enough mana to push your synergies through open removal mana. B/G Constrictor was so powerful because it had solutions to this problem.
The first of these solutions was access to quality, powerful removal that could be effectively used in this turn window. The loss of Grasp of Darkness hurt the B/G Constrictor deck more than I had anticipated. The ability to hinder your opponent's development in the turns you were taking off ensured a close to level playing field when you reached the stage of the game where your synergies could come online safely.
Grasp of Darkness on its own wouldn't have been enough to bridge that gap from turns 2-5. The true strength of the Constrictor deck was its access to turn 3 and 4 plays that played into your synergy while either being difficult to kill or providing value even when they immediately died. These were plays that B/G Constrictor didn't have to hold to make the best use of, plays that could be deployed on an empty battlefield into open mana without fear.
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar was extremely good at protecting herself and could be relied on to survive a turn or two and live to deploy an abundance of counters on your team. Some of the most powerful starts the deck had access to were turn 3 Nissa into turn 4 Constrictor + two-drop followed up by a -2 from Nissa. Tireless Tracker gave you a Clue to keep up the number of resources you had access to, and Catacomb Sifter left behind a Scion for your Verdurous Gearhulk or Rishkar, Peema Renegade. These cards are what allowed B/G Constrictor to be conservative with its synergy pieces while staying in the game.
And then they all rotated and left no suitable replacement in their wake. In Ixalan Standard, there simply weren't cards with the same functionality at those mana costs. Rogue Refiner was as close as we came, but that card wasn't threatening enough once on the battlefield to distract from your synergies, didn't aid your synergies in any meaningful way, and a single four-of in your deck wasn't enough to consistently bridge that gap anyway.
"Method is more important than strength, when you wish to control your enemies. By dropping golden beads near a snake, a crow once managed to have a passer-by kill the snake for the beads." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Sultai Energy couldn't take the B/G Constrictor approach of holding onto its threats, so it didn't try to. Instead of seeking to hold its power plays until a time when they would be more robust, it looked to exploit the opposition's need to destroy them in a different way.
Instead of casting a removal-resistant threat on turn 3 and 4, Sultai Energy sought to back up its synergy-laden threat with a copy of Blossoming Defense. Just like with B/G Constrictor, leaving the Sultai Energy threats on the battlefield was a dangerous proposition. Opponents were still forced to try and deal with them and forced to play right into Blossoming Defense.
And then when they did manage to overload the Blossoming Defense and deal with the threats you presented, you were able to hit them with a Hostage Taker, either with Blossoming Defense backup or after they had used all of their removal. The Sultai Energy deck attacked from a lot of angles and had to, as it couldn't play the same patient waiting game that B/G Constrictor could.
In a lot of ways, Sultai Energy was forced to play a tempo game. Keep your battlefield intact and the opposition off-balance with a Blossoming Defense just long enough to force through a play that puts you significantly ahead. This strategy worked, but it was also a lot more finicky than the original B/G Constrictor deck. Things had to line up in a certain way, and as a result the deck was much less centered around Winding Constrictor strategies.
Still, for a time it was the best Winding Constrictor strategy we had access to. But times have changed.
"There's a snake lurking in the grass." - Virgil
Alright, that was a lot of history, but I hope you've stuck with me. The point of all of that backstory was to make the case that true Constrictor decks weren't pushed out of the metagame by the dominance of Temur Energy but simply lacked the tools they had pre-Ixalan.
Temur Energy also existed before Ixalan, in much the same form as it did in the Ixalan era. Before Ixalan, B/G Constrictor was simply the better deck. Rotation took a very specific, very niche class of cards away from the B/G Constrictor deck, cards whose importance was subtle and easy to miss. Because these cards weren't direct Constrictor synergies, it would be easy to think that the reason Constrictor was bad in Ixalan Standard was simply that the Constrictor synergies weren't powerful enough anymore. But that's not the case.
As you might have guessed, I'm excited about Winding Constrictor once more in Rivals of Ixalan Standard. And the reason has nothing to do with the banning of Attune with Aether or Rogue Refiner. No, I have my eyes on some powerful Rivals cards that finally fill that hole left by Nissa and friends.
First and foremost among them: Jadelight Ranger. Now, I'll admit to some bias as here, as I have a fierce and undying love for every Magic card with Jade in its name. All ten of them. I've even gotten to sign most of them. Just something magical about cards that share your name.
So yes, nothing would make me happier than registering Jadelight Ranger in a competitive tournament and being convinced that I was correct to do so. But that last part is key, and I wouldn't trick myself into it. But Jadelight Ranger fills the exact role vacated by Tireless Tracker et al. In fact, there's a strong case that Jadelight Ranger fills that role better than Tireless Tracker ever did.
Like most things in Magic, it all comes down to mana. Despite both cards costing three mana, Jadelight Ranger can be deployed a full turn earlier than Tracker, as getting that first Clue is vital to Tracker's power. This is huge, as filling that turn 3 gap is something we really want to do. Tracker's synergy with Winding Constrictor is more powerful than Jadelight's, but it's also much more mana intensive and as a result, takes longer to come online. Turn 5 Winding Constrictor plus Jadelight is a much scarier play than Constrictor plus Tracker, or than Tracker crack Clue.
I view this card as the closest thing to a Nissa, Voice of Zendikar replacement that Standard Constrictor decks are ever going to see. It fills that same role of an early play that threatens synergy while being hard to interact with. Once on the battlefield, the opponent has to play deathly scared of you casting a Winding Constrictor on any subsequent turn. Further, Hadana's Climb has the same kind of abrupt "corner turning" ability that Nissa did, an ability that is highly prized in midrange strategies like this. For more on how I view games with Climb playing out, check out my article from last week.
I overlooked this card for Constrictor decks at first as preview season rolled on, and that was a mistake. Again, the value Ravenous Chupacabra adds to the Constrictor strategy is the ability to fill that awkward turn 3 and 4 gap in your plays. Removing a creature slows them down long enough for your synergies to be safely deployed, and leaving a body behind is a huge boon to your synergies. Being a home for counters from Hadana's Climb, Rishkar, Peema Renegade and Verdurous Gearhulk might not seem like a huge deal, but it really is. Every extra body you have alongside Winding Constrictor plus Verdurous Gearhulk is an extra counter, and that can really add up.
Given all of that, here's how I envision Constrictor decks looking in Rivals of Ixalan Standard.
- 4 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 3 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 2 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
"Have you ever held a snake? They are so strong. You can see why there are so many myths about them: they are unlike any other creature. It's extraordinary how that little brain can keep everything moving in different directions." - Michelle Paver
After identifying the cards we wanted to play to fill the holes from previous incarnations of B/G Constrictor, most of this deck construction was a breeze. Most of the challenge after that was in figuring out how to make the manabase functional yet not too prone to flooding despite not having access to Attune with Aether.
We want to play Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, as the card has historically proven itself to be a great complement to Winding Constrictor when Walking Ballista isn't seeing much play; and unlike Longtusk Cub, Siphoner doesn't rely on Attune with Aether to start being powerful. Further, we can't altogether abandon the energy subtheme as we need the Aether Hub to help out our blue splash. Given that, we likely need to play Servant of the Conduit to give us access to a little more energy and, as a bonus, color fixing. Besides, sixteen two-mana plays has always been the sweet spot for Constrictor decks, and as mentioned previously, Longtusk Cub doesn't look too appealing right now.
But playing Servant of the Conduit increases our risk of flooding. To combat this, the decklist features three deserts, skewing more heavily towards Hashep Oasis due to the game-ending potential of using Hashep Oasis and Winged Temple of Orazca on the same creature. I've also included the full playset of Fetid Pools, a land that is particularly appealing in its ability to turn lategame Jadelight Rangers into actual card draw.
The most questionable inclusion in the list is the single basic Island. Without Attune with Aether or Evolving Wilds, we don't need to have a basic Island at all, but I've included it under the assumption that Settle the Wreckage will be popular moving forward. One of the big draws to including blue is being able to have counter magic out of the sideboard, which we would like to be able to cast against the Settle the Wreckage decks. Having that basic Island means it's very hard to be stranded with Negates you can never cast against white-based control decks.
There's sideboard work to be done, obviously. I'm positive you want access to a large number of Duress and Negate, but it could conceivably be less than four each. The rest of the sideboard will be determined by where the metagame settles, but for week one I'd be particularly interested in graveyard or artifact hate to deal with God-Pharaoh's Gift decks and copies of The Scarab God and Hostage Taker to fight midrange mirrors with.
I've been missing Winding Constrictor for a long time, but I think my months of pining might finally be over.